Frances Hodgson Burnett

From New World Encyclopedia

Frances Hodgson Burnett

Frances Hodgson Burnett, (November 24, 1849 - October 29, 1924) was an English–American playwright and author. She is best known for her children's stories. Little Lord Fauntleroy was a number one best seller in 1886, became popular as a play, immortalized her son’s curls and velvet suits, and later was made into a silent movie with Mary Pickford. The Secret Garden, called a masterpiece in children’s literature, became popular only after her death when it was re-illustrated in the 1960s. A later work, A Little Princess (or The Little Princess) is the story of a little girl living in an English boarding school who endures many hardships before finding happiness.

The rags-to-riches themes of her stories echo her own rise from impoverished beginnings to international authoress. She was criticized in the press for being "scandalous," but then so was the dance craze, the turkey trot. Her flamboyant Victorian era clothing, her divorce, her many travels, and her literary circle of friends and their parties made her a popular subject. However, she never forgot the hardships of her childhood and was generous in funding various projects, particularly those involving children. She was a trend setter in her day, breaking new ground for other writers by fighting for copyright laws—both in the U.S. and in Great Britain.

Burnett's later works reflected her own spiritual search. She was intrigued by the idea of seances and communication with the departed, which was consolation to her after the death of her son. Despite illness, grief, and exhaustion she went on to write her most beloved tale, The Secret Garden. She built a replica walled garden at her Long Island estate, reflecting her life-long love of nature and English gardens. She was buried there with a statue of her son, looking like an older Lord Fauntleroy at the foot of her grave, paying tribute to her not only as writer, but as a mother.

Childhood and early stories

Born Frances Eliza Hodgson in Manchester, England, she emigrated to Knoxville, Tennessee, in the United States, after the death of her father in 1864. The American Civil War's economic effects were felt in England when demand for exports declined. Unable to maintain the family business after the death of her husband, Frances' mother moved them to be near a brother in America. He was unable to help the family much financially and for a period of time they lived in a log cabin like other pioneer families.

Frances was teased about her writing by her older brothers so she often wrote in secret. Lacking paper or proper materials she would write her stories on the back of old grocery lists. Once when she did not have the necessary postage to mail in a story to a magazine she, and older sister Edythe, picked wild grapes on a hillside in order to earn stamp money. Her first story was published in the women's magazine, Godey's Lady's Book in 1868. She was 18 years old and earned ten dollars a week as a writer, enough to support her siblings after their mother died when Frances was just 21. From then on she was published regularly in Scribner's Monthly, Peterson's Ladies' Magazine, and Harper's Bazaar. Her stories were known as "potboilers." Although by today's standards they would seem tame, at the turn-of-the-century, they were considered riveting and scintillating. Her talent lay in combining realistic detail, including authentic accented dialog, with a romantic plot.

Marriage and first novels

Her childhood friend and neighbor Swan Burnett asked for Frances' hand in marriage several times over a seven year period. Although she claimed she did not love him, she acquiesced to the social pressures of the time, which dictated that a woman's place was in the home. They married in 1873, and she supported her husband with her writing while he worked on his medical degree. They moved to Paris to further her husband's medical studies and their first son, Lionel, was born the following year. Their second son, Vivian was born in 1876, and the family then moved to Washington D.C.

Her first novel, That Lass o' Lowrie's, was published in 1877. It was a story of Lancashire life that was a resounding success both at home and abroad. Burnett would learn her first difficult lesson in copyright law when, upon her move back to America, she was unable to receive royalties for the British edition of the book.

Other novels written during her years of living in Washington were Haworth's (1879), Louisiana (1880), A Fair Barbarian (1881), and Through One Administration (1883), as well as a play, Esmeralda (1881), written with William Gillette, a writer she would have a long association with.

During this time, Frances became well known for her love of Victorian attire, fabulously adorned with feather boas, buttons, lace (once, when they had a house fire she went back in and rescued her clothes) and for her "Tuesday conversation groups." At one point the Burnetts lived next door to James Garfield, and when he ran for president her sons "campaigned" for him by hanging out the upstairs windows. Demonstrating a definite flair for the dramatic herself, Frances was nicknamed "Fluffy" by her family and signed her letters "Fluffina."

Frances Burnett's blue plaque in central London

Little Lord Fauntleroy and copyright struggles

In 1886, she published her piece de resistance, Little Lord Fauntleroy. Her son, Lionel was the one who encouraged her to write it by asking, "Why don't you write a book that a little boy would like to read?" As it turned out, although it was written as a children's book, it had a wide appeal, especially with mothers. Little boys most certainly chafed at the new fashion craze based on Oscar Wilde's attire of lace and velvet and the illustrations of Reginal Birch. Little Lord Fauntleroy, like mega hits today, generated merchandising souvenirs such as clothes, toys, playing cards, and other various themed paraphernalia. The story told of a little boy in America who, upon the death of his father, discovers a long lost grandfather, a member of British aristocracy. He then learns that he, himself, is an Earl and then begins a new life as "Little Lord Fauntleroy." This book captured the imagination of the public with its fascinating detail about life in the upper echelons of British society. It sold more than a half million copies.

A visit to London during Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee in 1887, would provide the inspiration for another book, Sara Crewe (1888), later re-published under the title, The Little Princess (1905). Frances' own childhood seems to have inspired the character Sarah Crewe, the plucky, resourceful heroine of the book, who rises above difficult circumstances to find happiness.

While in London, Burnett discovered that someone was staging a theatrical production of Little Lord Fauntleroy. She quickly retaliated and wrote her own version of the play which was, in turn, a big success, drawing audience members such as Prince Edward, Victoria's son. Learning her lesson from previous copyright troubles, she decided to sue the playwright for violating the Copyright Act of 1842. The courts sided with her. She set a precedent whereby playwrights needed to gain permission from authors before using their works. The Society of British Authors feted Burnett, hosting a dinner where they presented her with a diamond ring and bracelet. Up to this point in her career, she had been well-known but now she was to return to America, an international celebrity.

Back in New York, Little Lord Fauntleroy was to become a successful play and toured throughout the states playing to sold-out audiences.

Tragedy and spirituality

In 1890, tragedy struck when her oldest son died of tuberculosis. In turn-of-the-century America, this dreadful disease was the number one cause of fatalities. She tried to nurse Lionel back to health but he faded slowly and passed away, only 16 years of age. Hurt by the press' criticism of her as a mother and in mourning, Burnett refused interviews. In her reclusiveness, she decided to work on a memoir of her own childhood, up until the age of 18 called, The One I Knew The Best (1893). She followed this with The Lady of Quality (1896), considered one of her best plays.

Burnett and her husband, already living separate lives on different continents, decided to divorce in 1898, nearly unheard of at that time. She then entered into a troubled marriage with her business manager, Stephen Townesend, an English doctor and actor more than 10 years her junior. He later became her artistic collaborator, traveling with her in Europe. She was criticized once again in the press for being "scandalous" for divorcing and then marrying someone much younger. In 1902, less than two years after they married, they parted ways and eventually Burnett returned to America for what would be her final move after receiving citizenship in 1905. Burnett lived for the last 17 years of her life in Plandome Manor, New York.

Did you know?
Frances Hodgson Burnett, author of children's stories such as 'The Secret Garden' in which the characters suffer hardships before finding happiness, herself suffered great hardship and loss in her own life leading her to a spiritual quest for healing

In trying to deal with her son's death and her failed relationships she sought solace in a spiritual quest that included the philosophies of Spiritualism, Theosophy, and Christian Science. These philosophies shared thoughts about healing powers, a crucial motif in much of her later writing. It became especially evident in The Little Princess, The Secret Garden, and The Lost Prince.

During this time she wrote The Secret Garden which follows a young British girl, orphaned in India when cholera strikes, who returns to live with a dour and reclusive uncle in England. There she learns of a little boy, her sickly cousin Colin, who is hidden away in a bedroom on the large estate. Together with Dickon, a local boy who has a rapport with animals, they discover a garden hidden behind a locked gate that has been neglected since the death of Colin's mother many years earlier. In their secret garden a small robin befriends the lonely children. The characters in the book, unhappy and unloved in the beginning, find renewal not only through tending the garden but through helping one another.

Burnett began to delve deeper into spiritual themes with In the Closed Room, which is about a little girl who forms a friendship with a young playmate who is actually a ghost, in a locked room in the house. She dealt with a similar subject in The White People, a novella about a Scottish woman with "second sight," a euphemism for her ability to see dead people, or ghosts.

End of life

In later years, public sentiment and reporters turned against Burnett and she strove to live out of the spotlight. Her last public appearance was the screening of Little Lord Fauntleroy the film, in 1921.

Frances' had her own walled English garden on her estate at Plandome, Long Island. Reportedly, it was filled with roses and hollyhocks and one can imagine her looking out on it while she wrote. Her last book In the Garden was written while she was ill, often confined to bed, and at the end of her life. Perhaps speaking of her own life experience with loss and renewal she wrote:

When you have a Garden
You Have a Future
And when you have a Future
You are Alive!

Frances Hodgson Burnett died peacefully at home on October 29, 1924, and was buried in the Roslyn cemetery, on Long Island, New York.


Although she is best remembered for The Secret Garden, written after she moved to Plandome, Long Island, Little Lord Fauntleroy was the most popular of her works during her lifetime. Many of Burnett's books have long been forgotten; however, The Secret Garden is still in print and in 1989, was re-released by four publishers. The updated illustrations by Tasha Tudor, in 1962, richly detailed and Victorian in style, helped to renew interest with a new generation of readers.

In 1936 a memorial sculpture by Bessie Potter Vonnoh was erected in her honour in Central Park's Conservatory Garden in New York City. The statue depicts her two famous Secret Garden characters, Mary and Dickon.


Little Lord Fauntleroy, staged often as a play, was first made into a film during the heyday of silent movies. In 1921, it opened in New York City with child star Mary Pickford, who played Cedric with her long blond curls and, with her hair pinned up, played Cedric's mother. This was considered a breakthrough in movie technology; Pickford wore tall platform shoes as the mother and appeared in many scenes with her "son." In 1936, a version starred famed child actor of that era, Freddie Bartholomew. In the 1980s, Little Lord Fauntleroy was made into a television movie with Ricky Schroeder and Alec Guinness. In 1995, the BBC filmed a version with Michael Benz and George Baker.

The Little Princess was made popular by the 1939 film starring child actress Shirley Temple. A more recent version in 1987 starred Nigel Haves and Maureen Lipman.

The Secret Garden was first filmed with another popular child actress, Margaret O'Brien, in 1949. It also starred Dean Stockwell. A 1993 version stars Kate Maberly and a 1994 Television version is animated. The Secret Garden's story lends itself well to theatrical productions and is still produced by community theaters and school groups.

Selected works

  • That Lass o' Lowrie's (1877)
  • Lindsay's Luck (1878)
  • Haworth's (1879)
  • Louisiana (1880)
  • A Fair Barbarian (1881)
  • Through One Administration (1883)
  • Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886)
  • Sara Crewe or What Happened at Miss Minchin's (1888)
  • The Fortunes of Philippa Fairfax (1888)
  • The Pretty Sister of José (1889)
  • The Drury Lane Boys' Club (1892)
  • The One I Knew the Best of All: A Memory of the Mind of a Child (1893)
  • Little Saint Elizabeth, and Other Stories (1893)
  • Two little pilgrims' progress. A story of the City Beautiful (1895)
  • A Lady of Quality (1896)
  • In Connection with the De Willoughby Claim (1899)
  • The Making of a Marchioness (1901)
  • The Land of the Blue Flower (1904)
  • A Little Princess:Being the Whole Story of Sara Crewe Now Told for the First Time (1905)
  • Queen Silver-Bell (1906)
  • The Shuttle (1907)
  • The Secret Garden (1911)
  • My Robin (1912)
  • The Lost Prince (1915)
  • The Little Hunchback Zia (1916)
  • The Head of the House of Coombe (1922)

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Gerzina, Gretchen Holbrook. 2004. Frances Hodgson Burnett: The Unexpected Life of the Author of The Secret Garden. Rutgers University Press. ISBN 0813533821
  • Green, Carol. 1995. Frances Hodgson Burnett, Author of the Secret Garden. Chicago: Children's Press. ISBN 0516042688
  • Shirley, Angelica Carpenter and Jean Shirley. 1990. Frances Hodgson Burnett, Beyond the Secret Garden. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publications. ISBN 0822549050
  • Thwaite, Ann. 1974. Waiting for the Party, The Life of Frances Hodgson Burnett. Secker and Warburg. ISBN 0684139898

External links

All links retrieved April 1, 2024.


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